A wave of hopelessness washes over me as I click the email. The subject line – “The Apology Letter” – sounds ominous. I wonder why one of my students is apologizing to me.
Last Saturday night, Miss R, one of my 8th grade rhetoric students, wrote: “I am so sorry Mr. King. I am so sorry because, I am a failure to my partner (Mr. ——). I let us down big time. I guess I’m not really a debater, so I’m sorry.”
I was crestfallen. Times like these are when teaching breaks your heart. Miss R is one of my hardest-working students, the kind of student whose curiosity and strong work ethic carry her forward. She’s the first to raise her hand in class, wriggling in her seat, jostling to be the first student I call. Her grandmother owns the modest country store across the street, a cheerful place where canned peaches and hard candy adorn the spare shelves. Every two months, Miss R travels to a children’s hospital in Little Rock, where her sister receives treatment for cancer. She may not have the fastest mile time, but she always takes two steps forward and no steps back. Miss R lives to please her teachers and is ashamed at the prospect of disappointing us.
I took a minute to process the late-night email, then decided it was too early to let Miss R give up on herself. I called the only number I had, which turned out to be her grandmother’s. Luckily, her grandmother answered and passed on Miss R’s home number. I dialed again and this time Miss R picked up. On her end of the line, I heard muffled screams. Miss R moved into another room and the sounds grew quieter. Only today did Miss R reveal that it was her sister screaming in background. Childhood cancer must be suffering incarnate.
Our conversation drifted from talk of weekends to talking of the next weekend – the looming debate this Saturday in Jackson. Miss R’s voice trilled with anxiety. She reiterated her concerns – the doubt in her preparation, the dissatisfaction with her own writing, the sense that she simply didn’t have the ability to debate – and I listened. Then I offered my rebuttal. “Miss R,” I said, “you are not a failure.” I don’t remember what I else I said, but I managed to beg, borrow, and steal a concession from her – Miss R would send me pictures of her case, I’d type it up for her, and we’d make a plan of action in the coming week. As of today, she and her partner are Jackson-bound. I only hope a strong showing this weekend will give her some ammunition in the fight against the inner demons of self-doubt.
Another female student approached me this week, also concerned about the debate on Saturday. This student, Miss C, is a perfectionist. Her homework is exquisite. She’s not the first to raise her hand in class, but when I cold-call her, she almost always supplies a correct answer. Last week, when we were practicing rebuttals, she outperformed the rest of the class (I told her as much, but she thought I wasn’t being straight with her). Miss C’s partner has had shoddy attendance and didn’t write her case, leaving Miss C doubting whether she even could attend the debate on Saturday. Add to this Miss C’s concerns over her level of preparation, and general anxiety when it comes to competing with louder students, and she her mind was already made up by the time she approached me – come Hell or high water, she was not going to Jackson. It took an intervention from our Program Director to buy some time and work out a new partner arrangement for Miss C. Even now, there’s no joy in rhetoric class for Miss C. She thinks I’m setting her up for failure.
There’s a common thread that runs through the stories of Miss R and Miss C: both are bright, hardworking female students who feel profoundly challenged by debate. Both fear failure and can’t stand disappointing their teachers or peers. I wonder why my male students, who on average are far less serious about debate than Miss R and Miss C, don’t share the same insecurities. As it turns out, psychology has the answer: “bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.” Now it all makes sense.
No matter how much I emphasize that debate is a “mental workout,” that practicing debate is akin to exercising a muscle, and that strength and confidence grow with practice, some of my female students interpret their mistakes and uncertainties as evidence of a lack of ability, not just as normal, natural stages in the development of first-time debaters.
I can’t help but feel that I have contributed to Miss R and Miss C’s insecurities. I operate under the assumption that practice makes perfect, an assumption many female students doubt. My class is intense. We do fast-paced lessons and lots of timed practice. I’m a demanding teacher. I assign challenging homework every night, including writing to persuade, putting evidence in their own words, and evaluating nonfiction sources from think tank reports to magazine articles. I bet it feels tough. I demand excellence, and especially for students like Miss R and Miss C, the prospect of disappointing me can be devastating. The same high expectations that have pushed my students to achieve so much in so little time have also pushed at least these two students – probably more – to new levels of stress.
There’s only one way to read this data – I’ve got to change something. It’s not time to overcorrect; these experiences are not so much a reason to change course entirely as an opportunity to trim the sails and head for calmer seas. In the next 36 hours, I’m going to do everything in my power to soothe nerves, answer last-minute questions, and inject added doses of motivation and inspiration. Most of all, I need to strike up one-on-one conversations with every student. It’s time to listen with the patient ear of the debate coach I wish to be.